Evernote is a cross-platform app that works something like a digital filing cabinet. We’ve talked about why so many people use it and how you should probably give it another try if you’re not hooked already. But today we want to take a closer look at how you might use it for something specific: writing fiction.
Picture: Digital Storm/Shutterstock
Evernote makes a great writer’s companion. It’s available on just about every platform, so you can collect and organise your notes wherever you are. You can take notes in your paper notebook and scan the pages. Hell, you can even write on the shower wall in crayon and snap a pic later. (You’re welcome for that crayon tip, by the way. It’s awful when you think of something in the shower and can’t write it down.)
Evernote is flexible enough to set up however it fits with your writing style. In this article, I’m talking about how I use it, but my hope is that it serves as a starting point and gives you some ideas you can use with your work.
Set up Your Workflow
You can set up Evernote however it suits your personal workflow. I’ve seen some people who use a single notebook stack named Fiction, but since you can have only one level of notebooks inside a stack, that wasn’t quite flexible enough for me. I set up separate notebook stacks instead:
- Fiction-General. This is my catchall stack for things that don’t fit into a specific project. It serves as a scrapbook for web clippings, photos, text and audio notes. It’s also where I store other ideas about fiction, such as my reading list and websites about writers and writing craft.
- Fiction-Challenges. I like to give myself little challenges to encourage daily writing, even when I’m not working on a specific project.
- Fiction-Novel. I keep a separate notebook stack for each novel. I only have one in there right now.
- Fiction-Short Story. I also keep a separate notebook stack for each short story.
This works well for me, but obviously you’ll want to play with your own structure to see what works best for you. Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point.
Capture General Notes and Research
You never know where inspiration will strike. Maybe it’s a couple arguing in the park, an old building in a town you’re visiting for the weekend, or a cool article about a new scientific advancement or archaeological discovery. No matter what I discover, I can record it, tag it and come back to it later.
I use my Fiction-General stack for basic research and collection. Here’s how I organise it:
- _Writers. I use this notebook to store web pages and articles about (or by) writers I like. The underscore at the front of the word keeps it at the top of the list in Evernote.
- _Writing Craft. I also love reading about the craft of writing. I use this notebook to store that kind of thing.
- Ideas to Explore. Whenever I come across an article or a quote or whatever that I think might make for good story fodder in the future, I toss it in this notebook.
- Photos. I like to take lots of photos of people, places, buildings — anything really. Sometimes they give me a basis for descriptions I might use in a story (in which case I move them to a more appropriate folder later). Sometimes I use them for writing challenges. But I also use this notebook as sort of an inspiration bucket. For the most part, I don’t tag or organise my photos in this notebook. I like flipping through them because you never know what ideas might bounce into one another and give you inspiration for something new (Hey, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!)
- Reading List. I actually use GoodReads to keep up with my reading list, but sometimes I want to make a quick note instead of logging on somewhere else. This notebook is temporary storage.
- Writing Scraps. You never know when a fun turn of phrase, a little bit of dialogue, or an awesome title will come to you. You have to have a place to keep them. This is probably the single biggest advantage of using Evernote for me. It’s a great way to store and browse all those little scraps. You can type them, write and scan them, or even dictate them using the Evernote app.
Plan and Write in Evernote
First things first. Evernote isn’t the best tool for writing. It’s OK, but it’s a little slow for my tastes, and it just doesn’t have what I want when I’m ready to sit down and hammer out some words. For that, I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It’s designed for writers, so it has a nice environment and good organisational tools. There are a lot of good writing apps out there though, so poke around and see what appeals to you.
That said, Evernote makes a good supplemental writing tool. Sometimes I want to do a little writing or editing when I don’t have Scrivener in front of me, and Evernote is fine for that. It’s also a good tool for planning a piece of fiction and for collecting the extra odds and ends you might want along the way.
I give long pieces, such as novels, their own notebook stack and then break it down like this:
- Chapters. I keep the chapters I’m likely to be working on synced up with Evernote. It’s easy enough to do, but how you do it will depend on what writing app you use. You can copy and paste, export your chapters to a text file to load into Evernote, and sometimes even sync directly.
- Pics. I don’t really use pictures in the stuff I write, but I do use them to visualise characters and places and provide a little inspiration. Most of the time, they’ll be pictures I dragged over from my general note collection or from a writing challenge. They are especially useful if you’re writing about places you haven’t been.
- Character Sketches. It’s important to me to keep notes about my characters handy. I just never know when some interesting little thing from real life will inspire some new aspect of a character. Maybe it’s something somebody says or an interesting outfit. My character sketches include basic info about characters but also pictures and snippets of dialogue.
- Scene Breakdown. When I’m planning a story, I usually plan scenes first and then think later about how those might fit together in chapters. It’s easier for me make sure I’m hitting the beats I want to hit with the story. It’s also an easy thing to play around with when you’ve got each scene broken down into a note in Evernote. Yes, those are scenes from The Terminator in my screenshot. I’m not really ready to share what I’m working on yet.
Motivate Yourself with Writing Challenges
I try to write a little for myself every day, but sometimes I don’t feel like working on a specific project. On those days, it helps me keep up with the daily writings to issue myself fun little challenges. You can come up with whatever challenges suit your fancy, of course, but I like these:
- Picture Challenge. Sometimes I’ll snap a pic meant for a challenge; other times I’ll just grab one from my main pics folder. It may be a photo of a person, or a building, or a manhole cover — anything, really. The idea is simple. Write 500-1000 words about that picture. You could use it as an exercise in description, dialogue, or simply for inspiration. Each picture is a note in Evernote and I just start typing right under the photo.
- Doorway Challenge. I learned about this exercise during a writing class long ago. Close your eyes and picture a door, any kind of door you want. It could be an exterior or interior door, a trap door, or even a door sitting in the middle of a field. Think about the colour and shape of the door, what the doorknob looks like and what it feels like in your hand. Reach out, push the door open, and start writing about what you see on the other side. I use this notebook to keep pictures of cool doors and I do the exercise right under the photo.
- Word Challenge. Sometimes to get loosened up, I’ll do a kind of free word association. Start with one word. Put your fingers on the keys and just start typing. Type all the different words, ideas, names and whatever else that starting word makes you think of. This is great for just loosening you up a bit before a writing session.
The great thing about using Evernote for these challenges is that you do a whole challenge on a single note and you’ve got it saved right there. If you spot some ideas that might be useful, go ahead and tag the note. Very often, I’ve had a challenge lead to an idea for a story or end up being something I can drop into an existing project. In that case, I just drag the note over to an appropriate folder.
Use Tags Sparingly
When it comes to tagging, less is more. I like to use just a few tags that I know I’ll use reliably. I’m already organising my notes using notebooks and stacks and Evernote’s search feature is solid. I do use a few tags though:
- Each story I’m working on gets a two letter tag, usually based on the title. That’s mostly backup for me just in case I misfile something to a notebook outside my fiction structure.
- I also use tags for character names because sometimes I want to store those notes outside my character sketches folder. It’s also helpful to tag scene notes with character names because when I use List view on the scenes, the tags column gives me a quick look at where characters are appearing.
Obviously, there are all kinds of different ways you could use Evernote for planning and writing fiction. You might use it just to collect notes and then do all your real work in something more robust. I also know writers that use Evernote for everything, including their actual writing. So, if you use Evernote for writing, I’d love to hear what what you do. I’m always on the lookout for better ideas to steal!